Eating Well and Not Dying: Avoiding Food Poisoning while Traveling
If you go…almost anywhere and don’t eat the street food, friend I am sorry to tell you You Are Doing It Wrong. Who doesn’t want to eat a bat on a stick? Or a choco-avocado smoothie? (I see more hands for the second one, I don’t know why, avocados are disgusting. Yes, I’m really from California, I have photo ID to prove it.) If you don’t eat street food you are missing out on a huge part of travel, and quite frankly, I have definitely gotten food poisoning more from restaurants than street food anyway.
Yep. I think street food is actually safer, because it tends to be things that are either naturally fine for a long time in the hot sun (really) or cooked quick and therefore totally fresh.
Tsukiji Fish Market: worth the early morning
So step 1 for avoiding food poisoning? Eat street food with locals. And by “with locals” I mean pick some place that’s popular. People don’t line up for crappy food that makes them sick. What I like to do is scope out places on an initial reconnaissance and then come back later when it’s not crowded/ is an off time. Anthony Bourdain has already told you this 20 times; listen to him.
Of course any place anywhere can give you food poisoning if food safety handling standards aren’t met, but this is going to focus on keeping you safe in places you can’t drink the water.
There are some places, like China and parts of Michigan, where no one drinks the water because there’s too many bad chemicals or heavy metals in it. There are other places, like Mexico and Egypt, where in theory it’s safe to drink the water, but people mostly don’t (and newbies will definitely get sick from it). In these places, if you’re going to be there for a while, I advocate drinking the water right away, getting sick, and getting it over with. If you’re some place for a year or several months, it’s easier to just introduce that bacteria into your gut right away. It’s going to happen eventually, and who wants to brush their teeth with bottled water forever? You’re all screwed up from jet lag, anyway, so might as well kill two birds with one stone. You’re already awake at 3 am.
As long as what’s in the water isn’t, say, cholera, just a minor bacterial difference, you’ll be fine. If it’s just a short trip, though, do what you can to avoid getting sick, because that will seriously mess up your plans.
Chicken feet are really more of a snack than a meal.
Step 2: Do Not Ask for Ice. I know you want it cold, but outside of the US, very few places put ice in drinks (I’m writing this step for Americans, because I don’t think une française is going to ask for ice in her ice tea— and if you do, can I see some photo id?). Because most people don’t use ice in drinks, locals aren’t used to making it/ using it. I have seen some very touristy places advertise they make ice with filtered water. If you trust them, then go for it.
But the rule is: if you can’t drink the water, don’t get ice. It’s obvious when you think about it, but a lot of people are hot, tired, thirsty, and not checking the price of a Coke on the menu, let alone thinking about ice melting and letting bacteria swim into your drink. (Unrelated tip: always look at the menu prices before ordering.) Depending on where you are (China), you might have to ask for a cold drink— that means refrigerated, and that’s fine. Don’t let them put ice in it, though. And if they don’t have a cold drink, well, guess what, you’re choking that drink down room temperature like the rest of us.
There are exceptions, so educate yourself: in Cambodia, for example, all ice is made in a special facility, so it’s totally safe.
IDK what everything is, but this cart definitely has everything
Step 3: Avoid salads. You think it’s healthy because it’s a salad, but what was that lettuce washed in? Water from the tap? You bet it was. If you’re lucky. Unless you want to spend the next day on the toilet (and that’s the best case scenario), don’t eat raw vegetables or unpeeled fruit (unless you wash it yourself in bottled/ boiled water or a fruit and vegetable wash). Pull the lettuce off your sandwich, I am not kidding.
Step 3b: Be careful of smoothies/juice. Yeah, it’s 30ºC in Bangkok and omg look at those fruit smoothies they are just throwing ice and papaya and apples into a blender and it looks amazing and girl, you know it tastes amazing, but…did they peel the skin off the fruit? Did they wash it first? What did they wash it in?
Step 4: Lemon! This one’s kind of fun. It’s also anecdotal, so I don’t know how true it is. Supposedly lemon is acidic enough that it kills some bacteria that screw up your gut. So if you really, really want a salad, squeeze lemon juice on it first. Lemonade might also be a safe choice. I have successfully eaten salads sprinkled with lemon juice and not gotten sick. It could be a coincidence— for some reason, it’s hard to find people willing to volunteer to test this.
Step 5: Do not go to China. Look, there are lots of reasons to go to China, and food is definitely near the top of the list. If you go, accept that you are going to get food poisoning. I know people who have lived there for years and still get food poisoning regularly. Some cheaper places use “sewer oil”, which is exactly as horrible as it sounds. Recycled oil is bad. Another benefit to street food: you can watch and see if they use fresh oil.
Just eat liang pe
Step 6: Touristy places. Yes, I know this is the opposite of step 1. But! Big restaurants that cater to tourists, especially tour groups, do not want thirty people coming down with food poisoning. They know it’ll get written up on Trip Advisor, and boom, there goes their future. They’re more likely to use food safety standards up to Western codes, make ice from filtered water, wash their hands once in a while, wash vegetables in a vegetable wash, etc. They’re also more likely to make bland food that won’t upset your stomach. And because they have such a high turn around, you can be pretty sure that chicken breast hasn’t been sitting in the fridge for a week.
Step 7: BBQ! If you feel like you really need to eat meat, go for BBQ rather than fried stuff. There’s no dirty, reused oil to worry about, and if the meat’s still pink on the inside, you can just put it back on the grill!
Which brings us to Step 8: only eat well done meat. I’ll allow an exception for wagyu beef sashimi, but if you’re trying that anywhere outside of Japan, reconsider your choices. If you’re getting an expensive steak in a fancy place you’re probably okay, but that chicken and pork better be damn well done.
There is a belief among some expats and travelers that eating really spicy food kills bacteria too. Again, this is purely unverified, but if someone ever tests this either way, let me know…
Laurel has lived in Eight countries and is currently living in Cambodia. You can follow her on Instagram, Twitter and Tumbler under Merythapy.